In the weeks to come you will read a couple of articles/opinions I wrote on flannel jerseys, that among other things, had problematic issues associated with the fabric. As a prelude to those articles, I thought it would be worthwhile to spend some time talking about flannel is and what you should expect to see in a professional grade uniform and why.
If you are new to researching and collecting flannels, I suspect you have heard folks comment about a jersey either being or not being made of “professional quality material.” Like most folks who are new to something, the tendency is to simply accept what someone who is thought to be more experienced has to say. If not and you’re like me and press for an explanation, the response from the “old timer” might be along the lines of “well I’ve been collecting these for years, and after a while you can just tell.” I know this answer has been put forth because I heard it myself years back.
I have researched and written extensively on a variety of topics like this over the years, finding either the basis for the response or the merits of the response lacking any real objective substance. The purpose of this article is to pick apart the fabric of an answer like “well I’ve been collecting these for years, and after a while you can just tell” and to see if I can’t do better by the collectors asking this type of question. I think I can. First of all let’s begin with just what flannel is and then what makes the fabric “professional quality” or not.
On a macro level, flannel refers to a textile made from fabrics, woven together and these fabrics are commonly used to make clothing and bedding. Flannel fabric is typically made from materials such as wool, wool and cotton, or wool and synthetic fibers. For our purposes and interests, “flannel” also refers to general naming convention for baseball uniforms worn up until the early 1970s.
This is not intended to be a course on textile manufacturing, but it is worthwhile to understand the concept of what a woven fabric is since it has bearing on fabric quality and grade. Please know this is an over simplification, but weaving involves the joining of longitudinal (lengthwise) and transverse (across or widthwise) threads into a single fabric. For non-sewers like me, this means with woven fabrics you will
notice a pattern of threads that appear to be aligned and intermingled. For our purposes, all we need to understand is the general process in order to make the connection with finished fabric quality or grade of uniform.
For woven fabrics such as flannel, there are a couple of general aspects that affect the quality of the fabric. They are the nature of the weave and the materials used.
Nature of the wave refers to how tight of a pattern the fabrics are joined together in; the rule of thumb being, the tighter the weave-the better the quality. The materials used means just that; more expensive and durable materials mean a better quality product. The quality or grade of a jersey is also influenced by other features such as
cut/construction, accoutrements such as buttons, and how the product is finished.
We now can safely and objectively state there are obvious physical differences in the various grades of flannel jerseys based on materials and the manufacturing process. This is big start in getting past the“well I’ve been collecting these for years, and after a while you can just tell.” What we should be looking for is the way we can see these things objectively for ourselves.
When I’m am looking at flannel uniforms either for MEARS or for those I am considering adding to my own collection, I rely heavily on the resources and references I have accumulated over a good number of years. They include a fairly robust and diverse reference library of baseball related books, magazines, programs, yearbooks, film, and scrapbooks. My reference library also includes flannel jerseys (of various grades including modern Mitchell & Ness examples) and fabric samples spanning the period of the early 1900s to the early 1970s. I also have invested in technology to include a digital microscope, light table, and UV light. All of this is mentioned to underscore once again why MEARS stopped offering opinions on items at shows or hobby events. I also rely on my experience in the hobby and my training in imagery analysis and research methods. O.K…enough of the personal infomercial, let’s get back to the topic at hand and helping you to see things for yourself.
Four purposes, pinstriped jerseys are probably the best examples for us to work with in an instructional article since I doubt many of you will be toting digital microscopes or jersey/fabric samples around to a show with you. I chose pinstriped jerseys because they have a color contrast that helps to visualize and confirm the quality of the weave even to the naked eye. For what its worth, I tend to pay more attention to the inside of the fabric than the outside as this is where I have found the weave can best be seen.
I have provided a number of PLATES to help illustrate the take-aways for looking at and for professional quality fabrics:
PLATE I: PLATE I comes from the 1939 Gold Smith baseball uniform fabric sample catalog. The catalog consists of 7”x5” fabric swatches for over a dozen grades of fabric. It is constructed in a “flip book” manner that actually allows you to conduct side by side fabric comparison. There is an obvious difference in the feel or texture between the two fabrics shown. However, unless you have something else on hand to compare the uniform you are looking at with, then you will want to be armed with something else to consider. Here is where the weave comes in.
PLATE II: PLATE II is same fabrics from PLATE I as seen from the back. Notice the difference in the pattern of the pinstripe. As we should expect to see, the weave of the professional grade fabric is much tighter than the lesser quality uniform fabric. This is something the old hand who spouted “well I’ve been collecting these for years, and after a while you can just tell” should know and be able to show you.
Of course we know that fabric materials and manufacturing technology changed over the years, so do the observations on fabrics from 1939 have any relevancy to later year flannels? The answer is yes.
PLATE III: PLATE III is a collection of actual professional grade major league uniforms and a lesser quality Rawlings product. The Rawlings product is dated by the manufacturer’s tag, which incidentally is the same style that is found in the professional grade products. As you can see, while the pattern looks roughly the same, the pinstripes on the professional grade uniforms take up less space because the quality of the weave. You should also notice that the weave pattern of the white material is easier to discern on the professional product than on the retail offering.
PLATE IV: PLATE IV shows much the same things, only this time I have chosen to highlight the fabric difference between an actual 1967 Cincinnati Reds professional grade major league uniform and the fabric used by Mitchell & Ness for their replica from that year.
Now I know what the guy who offered up “well I’ve been collecting these for years, and after a while you can just tell” is thinking right now… “Grob doesn’t know what he’s talking about…the difference is the size of the pinstripes and not the fabric or the weave.” Once again, our collecting curmudgeon would be wrong.
PLATE V: PLATE V shows side by side comparisons of non pinstriped fabrics from the same manufacturer (Wilson) from the same general period. When looking at this under a digital microscope, you can see the weave of the professional grade uniform is much tighter, hence your ability to see the weave pattern.
Of course “Mr. I know it when I see it” is likely to ask how do I know one is a lesser grade uniform and that they are from the same general period?
PLATE VI: PLATE VI shows the lesser quality Wilson product and his well put together big brother. A number of years back, I bought two dozen Wilson old stock flannel uniforms via E-Bay. All came with matching pants and in the original boxes. The cut/general construction of the uniform, the number and style of buttons, the fabric material composition were all indicative of non-professional grade uniforms. Of interest to note is they featured the same Wilson professional manufacturers tags that the major league counter parts did, and these spanned two separate tagging eras from the 1950s-1960s. One thing I appreciated about the packaging of these old stock uniforms was the fact they contained tags showing the fabric composition by material and % of use.
So how do you tell the difference between professional grade flannel and one of lesser quality? “Well I’ve been collecting these for years and I hope I have shown you.”
Weave is only one aspect to consider when evaluating the grade or quality of a flannel baseball uniform that you think might be a gamer. Other things to consider are:
-The cut/taper of the uniform
-The material used and what should be proper for the period
-The number and style of buttons or other means of closure
-The manner of construction to include sleeve and collar style
-The manufacturer in question and the dating by way of a manufacturers tag
-The manner and location of any supplemental player identification, to include materials used
All of this should be evaluated against things you can see with respect to points of comparison from other actual uniforms/fabric samples and or period images. If this sounds like too much work, there are always the guys who offer “well I’ve been collecting these for years, and after a while you can just tell.” They are easy to find because they are still working and dealing in the hobby today. I know because I look at the flannels they have evaluated and or sold all the time.
As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
MEARS Auth, LLC
For questions or comments on this article, please feel free to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com.